Boca Raton-raised Rachel Bay Jones, a 2017 Tony and Grammy Award winner for her featured role as Heidi Hansen, mother of a teenage son whose social media lie goes viral, in the smash hit musical Dear Evan Hansen, had long been ambivalent about forging a theater career in New York.
“I’m a Florida girl. I love nature, I love being out in the sunshine. Living in a gray city – which is what it felt like to me – I kept asking myself ‘What the hell am I doing here? What’s going on?’” she says by phone from the city she has learned to embrace. “So I would move to a lot of really beautiful places with some beautiful people and do some great stuff and then keep coming back (to New York).
“Because I think, ultimately, the big dream of my life was just to be able to support myself doing theater and to do work that felt meaningful to me and work with actors and artists who I held in high esteem. It was never about winning an award and making a lot of money and wearing the pretty dresses – all of that stuff.”
But the awards, the money and the dresses are now a part of her life as Jones, 48, is poised for more widespread visibility, with a recurring role in the new CBS television series God Friended Me and a featured part in a Julia Roberts film, Ben Is Back, due to be released this December. Next, though, she returns to South Florida for a solo concert at the Maltz Jupiter Theatre, on Saturday, Nov. 17.
Jones’s parents were both Shakespearean actors who were not about to discourage their daughter when she showed an interest in the stage at a young age. “I wish they’d tried a little harder to steer me away from it,” she now says with a tiny throaty laugh. “I was never really ever sure that that was what I wanted to be. It was sort of that the ball kept rolling. I kept working and in many ways it saved my life, to have that outlet when you’re a teenager meant so much. But I cursed them for a lot of years for getting me into this.”
Noticing that there was a part for a little girl in a play her mother was auditioning for, Jones went with her to Jan McArt’s Royal Palm Dinner Theatre and made her professional debut in Anniversary Waltz, a minor ’50s comedy. Later, she appeared in productions at Spanish River High School, eventually dropping out to take a role in a local stage show. Before long, she was on Broadway, understudying at age 19 in the musical, Meet Me in St. Louis, followed by a national tour of Grand Hotel.
But after doing several regional theater roles, Jones went through what she calls “that great long period of questioning – “Is this really what I want to do with my life?” I sort of woke up in my early 20s with, ‘Oh, wait. I never really wanted to be an actor.’
“I was always very introverted. Being onstage was a different thing, and the interaction with the world of show business outside of what’s going on on the stage was always very difficult for me. And in some ways it still is. So I left the business.”
But never for long. Jones moved back to South Florida and was soon appearing at the Pope Theatre, the Caldwell and Actors’ Playhouse in Coral Gables, all while trying to figure out what to do with her life.
Eventually, she decided to try New York again and, after a long stretch of unemployment, she scored an audition with director Diane Paulus, who cast her in the 2009 revival of that tribal rock musical, Hair. More importantly, Paulus encouraged her to try out for the role of the widow Catherine in her version of Pippin, reconceived inside a circus tent.
“And it’s a part that is usually played by a much younger woman,” notes Jones. “I was already in my 40s at the time, but she asked me to come in and audition for this ingenue part, Pippin’s love interest. At first, I passed on the audition. I said, ‘No, I can’t, I’m all wrong for it.’
“But she asked again and I felt like that was pretty stupid to keep turning down one of the best directors in the world. So I thought of the character as this actress who has been playing this ingenue role for a very long time. Therefore, she can be 42 years old playing a woman in her 20s.”
Unlike many in the cast, Jones had no circus skills. “But I said, ‘How about if I’m a clown?’ So we made this character part of the troupe by having her be a clown. I asked for a tiny little tricycle that I could ride and we peppered that through the first act with a few other clown bits.” The revival was a hit and so was Jones.
Earlier, she had been in a tour of A Christmas Story, with a score by a young, promising songwriting team of Benj Pasek and Justin Paul. They, like Paulus, were impressed by Jones and sought her out for their next project. “I got a call to come in and do a private reading – just for the authors – of this untitled musical,” she recalls. “And it turned out to be ‘Dear Evan Hansen.’”
The lesson? “If you stick around the people you love to work with, those things tend to come around again.”
Unlike so many musicals these days which are adaptations of popular films, Dear Evan Hansen was a completely original show, not based on any existing story. That made its long evolutionary journey to Broadway particularly challenging.
“I’ve likened it to the Wild West,” says Jones, who was involved since the first developmental reading. “There were no rules, there was no source material, so everything was a ‘yes.’ There were things that were wild and didn’t work and there were things that were wild and did work and they stuck. But at its heart, it’s the same show that was at that first table read.”
The show’s developmental process was very collaborative, emphasizes Jones. Pasik and Paul “were very respectful of allowing my voice as Rachel, a middle-aged mother of a teenager, to be heard in the process of creating this character. They were very respectful that what I felt was important, what I wanted to say as an artist and as a mother, stayed in the story.”
From her first exposure to the material, Jones sensed that Dear Evan Hansen was something special, with a unique ability to connect with audiences. “I think we all did from the second that we opened that script. We weren’t told what it was, we weren’t allowed to take a peek in the book ’til we got there,” she recalls. “They just said, ‘And now, open your books and read.’ And we did. And everyone in the room that day was a little bit floored.”
From that day on, Jones and most of the original cast cleared their schedules to remain with the Evan Hansen project – from its initial production in Washington at Arena Stage to its off-Broadway run at Second Stage, to Broadway. “We turned down a lot of more lucrative work to stick with this project,” she says. “It wasn’t so much feeling that one day this will pay off in any kind of a financial way or a career-building way, it was the material which was representative of the whole reason why we do what we do in the first place.”
Arguably, Jones won her Tony for singing her 11 o’clock solo, “So Big, So Small,” which brought the audience to tears nightly. “I never was able to do it without choking up myself,” Jones concedes. “While it was important for me to be present with the grief that’s inherent in that song, and to allow Evan to see that, I had to make sure that he knew that despite my grief and my asking him for forgiveness, that he knew that I was strong enough to be there for him.”
Asked about the night she won her Tony, Jones talks about it like an emotional roller coaster. “Because I told you I’m a little bit of an introvert, I’m shy. I was the most scared I can ever remember. I was ‘Don’t call me. Don’t call me, don’t call me. No, no, no, no, no.’ Because I didn’t want to get up there. It’s the most terrifying thing. It was not sane, but it was real, y’know?” Ultimately, though, “It was awesome. It was so much fun.”
She predicts that the Maltz concert will be a similar joy. “It’s something I’ve been thinking about for a long time. We’ve been trying it out a couple of times in other cities, but looking towards this concert at the Maltz to have it fully fleshed out,” she says. “So we’ve been previewing it, you could say, to get ready for Jupiter.
“I picked songs I always wanted to sing,” Jones offers. “What connects these songs, why do I want to sing them so much? I think it’s just because they all have stories that feel resonant to me and my journey up until this point. It’s everything from a Lyle Lovett country song about wishing I had a pony and a boat to songs from ‘Hair’ and songs that I’ve done in other shows. And some beautiful jazz standards that are meaningful to me.” And yes, be prepared with Kleenex: she will be singing “So Big, So Small.”
Numerous opportunities in many show business avenues are opening for Rachel Bay Jones, but she feels certain she will soon be back performing theater. “I haven’t been successful at staying away from it for very long really,” she says with another throaty laugh.
RACHEL BAY JONES BENEFIT CONCERT, Maltz Jupiter Theatre, 1001 E. Indiantown Road, Jupiter. Saturday, Nov. 17, at 8 p.m. Tickets from $50 and up. 561-575-2223 or visit www.jupitertheatre.org.